Russian intelligence and security services have been waging a campaign of harassment and intimidation against U.S. diplomats, embassy staff and their families in Moscow and several other European capitals that has rattled ambassadors and prompted Secretary of State John F. Kerry to ask Vladimir Putin to put a stop to it.
At a recent meeting of U.S. ambassadors from Russia and Europe in Washington, U.S. ambassadors to several European countries complained that Russian intelligence officials were constantly perpetrating acts of harassment against their diplomatic staff that ranged from the weird to the downright scary. Some of the intimidation has been routine: following diplomats or their family members, showing up at their social events uninvited or paying reporters to write negative stories about them.
But many of the recent acts of intimidation by Russian security services have crossed the line into apparent criminality. In a series of secret memos sent back to Washington, described to me by several current and former U.S. officials who have written or read them, diplomats reported that Russian intruders had broken into their homes late at night, only to rearrange the furniture or turn on all the lights and televisions, and then leave. One diplomat reported that an intruder had defecated on his living room carpet.
In Moscow, where the harassment is most pervasive, diplomats reported slashed tires and regular harassment by traffic police. Former ambassador Michael McFaul was hounded by government-paid protesters, and intelligence personnel followed his children to school. The harassment is not new; in the first term of the Obama administration, Russian intelligence personnel broke into the house of the U.S. defense attache in Moscow and killed his dog, according to multiple former officials who read the intelligence reports.
But since the 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine, which prompted a wide range of U.S. sanctions against Russian officials and businesses close to Putin, harassment and surveillance of U.S. diplomatic staff in Moscow by security personnel and traffic police have increased significantly, State Department press secretary John Kirby confirmed to me.
“Since the return of Putin, Russia has been engaged in an increasingly aggressive gray war across Europe. Now it’s in retaliation for Western sanctions because of Ukraine. The widely reported harassment is another front in the gray war,” said Norm Eisen, U.S. ambassador the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014. “They are hitting American diplomats literally where they live.”
The State Department has taken several measures in response to the increased level of nefarious activity by the Russian government. All U.S. diplomats headed for Europe now receive increased training on how to handle Russian harassment, and the European affairs bureau run by Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland has set up regular interagency meetings on tracking and responding to the incidents.
McFaul told me he and his family were regularly followed and the Russian intelligence services wanted his family to know they were being watched. Other embassy officials also suffered routine harassment that increased significantly after the Ukraine-related sanctions. Those diplomats who were trying to report on Russian activities faced the worst of it.
“It was part of a way to put pressure on government officials who were trying to do their reporting jobs. It definitely escalated when I was there. After the invasion of Ukraine, it got much, much worse,” McFaul said. “We were feeling embattled out there in the embassy.”
There was a debate inside the Obama administration about how to respond, and ultimately President Obama made the decision not to respond with similar measures against Russian diplomats, McFaul said.
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington sent me a long statement both tacitly admitting to the harassment and defending it as a response to what he called U.S. provocations and mistreatment of Russian diplomats in the United States.
“The deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, which was not caused by us, but rather by the current Administrations’ policy of sanctions and attempts to isolate Russian, had a negative affect on the functioning of diplomatic missions, both in U.S. and Russia,” the spokesman said. “In diplomatic practice there is always the principle of reciprocity and, indeed, for the last couple of years our diplomatic staff in the United States has been facing certain problems. The Russian side has never acted proactively to negatively affect U.S. diplomats in any way.”
Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia until last year, said that there is no equivalence between whatever restrictions Russian diplomats are subjected to in the United States and the harassment and intimation that U.S. diplomats suffer at the hands of the Russian security services. The fact that the Russian government stands accused of murdering prominent diplomats and defectors in European countries adds a level of fear for Russia’s targets.
“When the Russian government singles people out for this kind of intimidation, going from intimidation to harassment to something worse is not inconceivable,” Farkas said.
Kirby told me that the State Department takes the safety and well-being of American diplomatic and consular personnel abroad and their accompanying family members extremely seriously. “We have therefore repeatedly raised our concerns about harassment of our diplomatic and consular staff with the Russians, including at the highest levels,” he said.
Kerry raised the issue directly with Putin during his visit to Moscow in March. Putin made no promises about ending the harassment, which continued after Kerry returned to Washington. The U.S. ambassadors to Europe are asking the State Department to do more.
Leading members of Congress who are involved in diplomacy with Europe see the lack of a more robust U.S. response as part of an effort by the Obama administration to project a veneer of positive U.S.-Russian relations that doesn’t really exist.
“The problem is there have been no consequences for Russia,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who serves as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. “The administration continues to pursue a false narrative that Russia can be our partner. They clearly don’t want to be our partner, they’ve identified us as an adversary, and we need to prepare for that type of relationship.”